Found this abandoned opening from two years back! As the possibility of a new project looms, I find myself wondering what it will be. I might return to this, hard to say 😀
      In the swaying wagon bed Alek’s hand hovered over the locked strongbox. Only a foot square, it was so heavy he could barely lift the thing. Even Nico’s face broke into a frown and muttered curses escaped on the few occasions the old man had moved it. As if in remembrance, Nico’s grumbling floated down from the driver’s seat, just audible over the patter of rain on the canvas roof. Outside the wooded hills gleamed green, the mist of rain obscuring a dark trail. The trees grew close together here, their canopies masking the grey sky.       He shook his head, so much for the Sunny Hills of the Southern Duchy.
      “At least the roads are better,” Nico told him when he complained, and Alek had to agree. It had been smooth travel; they’d not had to make repairs to the wagon and only taken two detours. Even the last village, a place where few were willing to part with their money, had a compacted road leading into it. But after repairing a few pots and pans Nico had them moving again. “Things will be better at Denam, folks there know the true value of a good Jack,” he’d nodded to himself.
      Alek wasn’t so sure. Everywhere they went he met deep-lined faces and shoulders set as if to ward off blows. Farmer, villager, the occasional Solitary, even passing merchants, it didn’t matter – the tension was always there. It ebbed and flowed in the places they drove through, and it wasn’t always the expected trouble of bad weather or locusts. Some folk they spoke with claimed the King’s guard had actually robbed them, that the soldiers had become violent.       That sounded like the ravings of madmen, but at least the road hadn’t been clogged with such rumours when he was younger. There’d been a time when people would rush onto a green or square to greet a tinker’s wagon.
      “Woah, boy,” Nico gave a shout and Alek snatched his hand away from the strong box. The wagon was slowing. He replaced the blanket and chest that usually covered the steel box and rolled up his bedding. He’d never seen inside, never even seen Nico’s key, but something wonderful was hidden in the box, he knew it. Why else would Nico hide it from everyone, and, more importantly, why would the old man forbid him to try and pick the lock – gripping both Alek’s hands as he spoke? Not that Alek’s skill with locks and tools got him very far, the single time he’d dared, while Nico was abed with fever, he’d been thwarted. The lock didn’t respond, he’d given the metal a tap with his tools but it refused to sing to him the way other metals did.       Every once and a while, Alex’s curiosity overcame him and he had to look again.
      But the strongbox never gave anything away…

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